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Talking Headways Podcast: Measuring Transportation Insecurity

This week, Alix Gould-Werth of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and Alex Murphy, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, talk about their transportation security index.

For those of you who get your news through your eyes and not your ears, there’s an edited transcript below the audio player. For an unedited transcript, click here.


Jeff Wood: So you had to cut it down; you ended up cutting it down to 16 questions. How do you get to the point where you feel like you’re good and you’re set in the final questions, because you did go through that process of whittling down, figuring out which questions were not quite working for folks? I’m also interested in that issue of things being too complicated, because I think sometimes we do make things a little bit more complicated or it’s inside baseball. I think a lot of the folks that listen to his podcast are inside baseball for the most part — but I think that’s part of the problem too, or is the acronyms or the too much information or the depth that goes into it. I’m curious about kind of some of that issue and why that came out when you’re doing the whittling of questions.

Alix Gould-Werth: Well, I guess maybe there’s a few different ways to think about it. One is, right when you’re asking a survey question, you not only want to capture the reading level that most people are at, but you want to make it a lot easier than their reading level because you don’t want to create any sort of burden. So we worked a lot with the survey methodologists at the beginning, just to figure out what is the concept and what are the simplest words that we could use to describe what issue people might be facing. So like an example of, one of our questions is, "In the past 30 days, how often did you skip going somewhere because of a problem with transportation?" So we worked a lot to figure out how can we talk about, you know, a foregone trip is probably how we started talking about it and how we can, how can we get this into simpler language?

But then I think we also had blinders on in some ways. So, weather is a good example, right? We were thinking, I have this powerful image in my mind, if someone who is exposed to the elements in Detroit, that is not necessarily a common experience across the broad population. So if you ask someone about whether they’re going to think about when the road was icy and that made them not want to drive in to wherever they had to go, or when it was raining. And so they didn’t want to get on their bike or whatever, there’s just like a lot of difference. We had to kind of zoom out and see what the full population would think about some of these experiences.

Another good example is about being late because of a problem with transportation. So we had in our mind images of people who would sit and they would plot out a really complicated commute, like, "I’ll get a ride from my neighbor to this bus stop, and then I’ll take a three bus transfer and I’ll try to get to this place." And if any one leg of that journey doesn’t work out, I’m going to be half an hour late to this really important appointment I had or something like that. Or maybe just to like hang out with a friend, because that is really important too. In reality, a lot of people are like, "man, you know, traffic was terrible. And I was late to this thing, you know, someone who just had a car and could go place to place, but there was like some congestion on the road."

So I think, whereas maybe people who are used to looking more broadly at the full population might overlook some of the dynamics that people that Alex and I were spending time with were facing in terms of how transportation systems are not serving their needs. You might just assume it’s easy to get a car for a lot of people. It’s really not because of all kinds of barriers for us; we were kind of focused on the barriers that some of the people we had spent time with were facing. And so when we wrote questions that are designed to be useful across the entire population, we had to think about how to kind of weed out those false positives.

Alex Murphy: Another way that our questions changed: ...We are both people who are interested in largely poverty and we were interested in the ways that financial restraints might shape people’s ability to get around. So all of our questions had some dimension of "In the last 30 days, were you late getting somewhere because you couldn’t afford the transportation you needed or you couldn’t afford better transportation."

And what we found in these cognitive interviews is that people would say, no, it’s not because I couldn’t afford better transportation. It’s because the buses are really bad. You know? In our mind how we were thinking about this was like, yeah, if you were a rich person, you get in an Uber, right? Or you’d have other options. And so you wouldn’t be doing this, but that’s not the way people on the ground were thinking. They were thinking about all the ways that the modes that we’re taking are crappy and that has nothing to do with my money, or they would disentangle sort of their financial situation from having to take those.

So we ended up taking all reference to affordability and money as the reasons people were experiencing these symptoms, out. That means that researchers who want to use our index are going to have to look at what people’s financial picture is, how it relates to insecurity itself. An interesting part of our work and interesting journey that we’ve been on in sort of sharing our work with other people is, so our questions have we think about our questions to sort of falling into three different buckets. One is material questions that are a lot about time and ... are you late getting somewhere? Did you have to arrive early because of your ride? Did you have to skip going someplace? Did you have to reschedule? But we also saw in our work that a manifestation or a symptom of transportation insecurity relates to people’s social lives and social relationships.

So a lot of people use or rely on friends and family and neighbors and co-workers to get around. We had seen that, for people who do that, they experience a lot of stress and strain around asking people for rides. Some people say that they worry about being a burden. Some people feel like they don’t get invited places because people know they have bad transportation. And there’s also a whole other dimension that’s more sort of emotional and psychological around people feeling bad that they don’t have good transportation or feeling left out. Right? And we thought that these were at least for the people that we were interacting with and observing and talking to these were just as important as all the kinds of things around not getting to their destinations or being late. So a lot of our questions have these social, psychological dimensions to them.

I think people are often surprised by that. You know, sometimes people say, we want to use your index, but we can’t use all of the questions. So can we just use all the ones that have nothing to do with people’s feelings or their social relations and in our analysis, even in our quantitative analysis, we’ve seen that these dimensions are part of the same construct as the material dimensions. It’s part of ... transportation insecurity. It’s just as important as being late and skipping trips and not going to your destinations. For me, this is a really important point. One of the ways sociology can contribute to this conversation is that there are dimensions that some people would think are soft dimensions that don’t matter as much in transportation that in fact really do. It can help us understand insecurity in ways that are often missed or overlooked or just kind of thought of as not important as some other things.

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